It is a relatively short list: the men and women in the fresh produce industry whose careers in retail have brought nationwide respect and admiration. Just as short is the list of fresh produce suppliers who are viewed in a similar light.
The names of an elite few, however, appear on both lists. Among them is Mike Aiton, director of marketing for Prime Time International, Coachella, Calif.
To hear Aiton tell it, his 40 years of success are because of good luck and good colleagues.
“I give all the credit to the people I’ve worked for and the people I’ve worked with,” he said. “I learned from all of them.”
Not all of his colleagues are willing to accept credit, though.
“He has a very unique perspective on what it takes to supply and promote produce,” said David Marguleas, chief marketing officer for Bakersfield-based Sun World International LLC.
“He’s earned the respect of countless retailers and grower-shippers as well as dozens of produce buyers and salesmen who worked with and for him.”
Aiton’s retail career began on a part-time basis with King Soopers during his days at the University of Colorado. After graduation and a tour of duty with the military, Aiton returned to the Denver-based chain, now a division of The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, where he found a mentor in Russ Dispense, now president of King Soopers.
“I was lucky enough have him pick me to learn the produce side,” Aiton said.
At one point, the company deliberated sending Aiton to a year of study at the American Institute of Baking. Aiton decided to stick with produce.
“I can’t imagine how much I’d weigh now if I’d gone the other way,” Aiton said.
As director of produce and floral, a position he held for a decade at King Soopers, Aiton became a mentor to others. Among them was Armand Lobato, now western foodservice promotion director for the Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle, Idaho and a columnist for The Packer.
“Mike was on the cutting edge of quality,” Lobato said. “He always was looking for enhanced maturity, sugar content and proprietary varieties. When everyone else was concentrating on price, Mike was looking for fruit that tasted good — a premium product that would bring customers back again and again.”
That commitment to premium products led Aiton to work with Gil Henry, a founder of Henry Avocado Corp., Escondido, Calif., to launch a new concept: “Ripe for Tonight” avocados.
“It was incredible,” Aiton said. “Our avocado sales just went through the roof with the first ad.”
Under Aiton’s direction, King Soopers also was the first retailer to advertise red flame seedless table grapes.
With its progressive culture, King Soopers became a magnet for Sun World and other California suppliers.
In 1991, Marguleas and Sun World lured Aiton, his wife and their seven children away from Colorado.
“I admired his creativity and his energy as a retailer — an innovative retailer,” Marguleas said. “I believed Sun World would benefit from his retail expertise, particularly in the marketing arena.”
Starting as Sun World’s director of marketing, Aiton climbed the Sun World ladder to vice president of marketing and eventually senior vice president of marketing and sales.
“He made the transition — when few others do — from retail to the grower-shipper community and did it very effortlessly and seamlessly,” Marguleas said.
Two years ago, after winning a battle with cancer, Aiton made another transition, this time to Prime Time International.
“When I left Sun World, I was really blessed to walk kind of across the field to another terrific company,” Aiton said.
That the move was effortless and seamless came as no surprise to Lobato.
“Anybody can captain a ship in calm waters,” he said. “But when you get those 40-foot waves, Mike is the kind of guy who can manage the big ship through the storm.”
At 64, Aiton does not envision a life away from fresh produce.
His family has always been his top priority, he said, “but I can’t imagine not working in some capacity.”
“I love what I do. I love this business, and I enjoy the people that I work with and the people in the industry,” Aiton said. “I can’t image just unplugging.”